Lakers continue to build chemistry, move into the playoff picture with win over Bulls

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LOS ANGELES — It’s been a long time in the making, and there’s plenty more work to be done over the regular season’s final 18 games. But for the first time all year, the Lakers can look at the standings and see themselves as an official part of the playoff picture after Sunday’s 90-81 win over the Bulls at Staples Center.

The Lakers are now 33-31 on the season, and sit in the eighth spot in the Western Conference standings, a half-game ahead of the Utah Jazz.

In Friday night’s win over the Raptors, the Lakers needed several shots that were both miraculous and heroic from Kobe Bryant down the stretch to come back and get the overtime victory. They didn’t need much from him offensively in this one, however, thanks to a balanced attack and a strong third quarter from Steve Nash, who scored 10 of his 16 points in the period.

Bryant didn’t even reach double figures in scoring until he hit a three-pointer with 4:52 remaining in the third quarter, which pushed the Lakers lead to 15. He finished with a team-high 19 points, to go along with seven rebounds and nine assists, while five of his teammates finished in double digits.

The Bulls are not known for their offense, and struggled to score in this one. Chicago shot a dismal 37.1 percent from the field, and went just 4-16 from three-point distance. But the defensive effort from the Lakers was stronger than usual, led by an increasingly more active Dwight Howard, whose 21 rebounds helped L.A. dominate the Bulls on the glass for most of the contest.

Chicago was able to cut a lead that once reached 18 points down to eight with just over eight minutes remaining in the fourth, but the Lakers responded by scoring the next five points, while holding the Bulls scoreless for the next three and a half minutes.

More important than this single game victory and the temporary playoff position that it earned the Lakers is the improved chemistry the team is showing on the court. The communication was constant in this one defensively, with players giving their all on loose ball and rebound opportunities, while the body language overall was genuinely positive. The change from the way these guys interacted with each other in the opening months of the season is both noticeable and substantial.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t some bumps along the way — Bryant was furious with Metta World Peace at the end of the first half, after he committed an offensive foul while Bryant was dribbling down the clock to get off a final shot. He yelled at Metta as the two walked back down the floor, but all was forgiven later when Bryant was seen with his arm around his teammate on the bench early in the fourth.

The extent of how much Howard can improve from a health standpoint as the Lakers close out the regular season, along with the amount of chemistry the team can continue to build during that time will largely determine its postseason fate.

Winning can cure a lot of issues, and certainly helps the team-building a lot more than it hurts. At least after Sunday’s victory, L.A. can now, if only briefly, officially see itself as part of the playoff picture.

Jazz boost international bona fides with new minor-league coach

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Martin Schiller has been named coach of the Salt Lake City Stars, the Utah Jazz’s NBA G League affiliate.

Schiller previously served as an assistant coach of MHP Riesen Ludwigsburg in Germany and replaces Dean Cooper. He was an assistant coach for the Artland Dragons from 2010-15.

Schiller has also been an assistant coach on the German National Team since 2015, where he worked with Jazz assistant coach Alex Jensen.

Schiller hails from Vienna, Austria, and Stars vice president of basketball operations Bart Taylor lauded him for his international experience and player development background.

The Jazz organization is known to have close relationships with the international basketball community. The Jazz currently have eight international players.

Kyrie Irving will wear No. 11 with Celtics

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BOSTON (AP) — Newly acquired guard Kyrie Irving will wear No. 11 in Boston because the Celtics already have retired the numbers he wore in college and with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Irving wore No. 11 at two New Jersey high schools before switching to No. 1 at Duke. He wore No. 2 with the Cavaliers for the first six years of his NBA career.

The Celtics retired No. 1 for founder and original owner Walter Brown. They retired No. 2 for former coach and general manager Red Auerbach.

In all, the Celtics have retired 21 numbers, with Paul Pierce’s No. 34 next in line for the TD Garden rafters.

 

PBT Extra: Cavaliers’ new GM aces first big test with Kyrie Irving trade

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Everyone in the NBA — heck, nearly everyone living in the Western hemisphere — knew Kyrie Irving wanted out of Cleveland. That should kill the Cavaliers’ leverage and make it hard to get enough quality back.

New GM Koby Altman — the guy thrust into the job when David Griffin was shown the door — pulled it off brilliantly.

That’s what I talk about in this new PBT Extra. With Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder, the Cavaliers remain the team to beat in the East this season. The Brooklyn Nets pick gives them flexibility going forward, whatever LeBron James decides to do next season.

First time at the plate in the big leagues and Altman crushed it to straight away center field.

Cavaliers-Celtics deal first offseason trade involving players who just met in NBA Finals or conference finals

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The Cavaliers and Celtics played in last year’s Eastern Conference finals. The teams were widely expected to meet there again.

Yet, Cleveland and Boston just completed a blockbuster trade – Kyrie Irving for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and the Nets’ 2018 first-round pick.

That seemed odd.

In fact, it’s unprecedented.

That is an incredible fact, one which speaks to LeBron Jamescachet. The Cavs are emphasizing this season, LeBron’s last before a player option, by loading up with veterans Thomas and Crowder. With LeBron still reigning in Cleveland, the Celtics are delaying their peak by acquiring the younger Irving.

Adding to the intrigue: the Cavs and Celtics are still favored to meet in this year’s conference finals. At minimum, they’ll face off in a(n even more) highly anticipated opening-night matchup.